How Bill Cosby’s trial became a barometer of society’s stance on race, gender, and legacy
Written by Miroslav Tomoski
Illustration by Alexander Grahovsky
After six days of deliberation, anger, and tears in the jury room, Bill Cosby’s sexual assault trial came to a less-than-climactic end with a deadlocked vote of 10-2 to convict, resulting in a mistrial. It’s a fate that seems almost like a forgone conclusion: that a celebrity accused of a crime should walk free in the face of glaring evidence and overwhelming public opinion. It’s even tempting to think that if the accused had been anyone else the result might have been different. But sexual assault cases are rarely straightforward and Cosby’s case invited a mess of controversy that weaves its way through issues of race, sex, and legacy. While the victims of sexual assault are always the ones who suffer the most, the crime is one that can send shockwaves through entire communities and have far reaching effects – for good or ill – that stretch well beyond the courtroom.
That controversy was on full display in the embattled jury room. According to one juror who spoke out after the trial, each of his peers had been convinced that there had not been enough evidence to convict when they first entered that cramped jury room in Philadelphia. Despite an apparent admission of guilt in Cosby’s 2005 deposition, which sent this case back to the courtroom, in the eyes of the jury the prosecution had failed to provide enough evidence. It was clear to most, though, that Cosby was guilty of two charges of sexual assault, but not a third, which required proof that Andrea Constand, his accuser, was unconscious at the time. Over 52 frustrated hours of deliberation – in which one juror reportedly punched a wall – the jury would go back and forth several times asking for re-reads from the judge and trying desperately to convince their peers.
The jury’s indecision is indicative of the general public’s feelings around the trial as a whole, and while only two of the 12 jurors were black, this was no doubt a trial in which race and legacy had a large role to play.
Even as accusations began to resurface, Cosby’s daughter Ensa told CNN’s Michael Smerconish that race was definitely a factor. “I strongly believe my father’s innocent of the crimes alleged against him,” she said, “and I believe that racism has played a big role in all aspects of this scandal.”
Ensa’s statements to the press are a strong indication that cases like this become far more complicated outside the courtroom and she was not alone in that belief. Cosby was no doubt a giant of the African American community and one of the most recognizable names in American show business. His hit television sitcom frequently featured black musicians, African art, and iconic guest stars like B.B. King and Stevie Wonder. While off the set, Cosby used his fortune and fame to donate millions and raise the profile of historically black colleges. None of which ought to matter in a case where he was accused of a serious crime. But where justice is blind to his legacy, the rest of the world can’t help but consider what such shattering revelations could mean.
Regardless of race, The Cosby Show had been a hit among all Americans. From 1984 to 1992 and in re-runs to follow, Cosby entered the living rooms of millions to become America’s dad and portrayed African Americans in a light they had rarely been shown on television: upper-middle class, educated, and embracing the traditional values of a nuclear family; taking part in the American dream. To accept the accusations against him is also, in part, to reject the image of the man we had constructed over the years. It’s a small price to pay to ask that we break from that illusion in order for justice to be done, but it’s certainly difficult to break such a comfortable illusion.
After cementing a roaring legacy, it’s easy to see why most of his cast members have stood by him in light of the allegations. Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played his youngest daughter Rudy, has been one of Cosby’s most staunch defenders, even accompanying him to trial in Philadelphia. While co-star Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby’s wife Claire, told Entertainment Tonight in 2015, “This is not about the women, this is about something else. This is about destruction of legacy.”
For victims of sexual assault, hearing those words can be understandably jarring. How could his co-stars stand by when the evidence was so clear? And most of all, how could it not be about the women? Yet for those who had known him as the character he portrayed, the truth behind the accusations is what is most damning because we want so badly to believe in the character and legacy that Crosby represents.
Even among co-stars who are less inclined to defend Cosby, the show’s legacy is at the center of their considerations. Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who played Cosby’s son Theo said, “I am in no position to defend him, but nor will I throw him under the bus.”
For his co-stars, the messy politics of race has a major hand to play in this case. Cosby made it a point to represent his character and the values he espoused on screen outside of the studio. In doing so, he tied his own actions to everyone else who took part in that legacy, which is a ship that is now in danger of going down with its captain.
White icons, as pointed out by former co-star Malcolm-Jamal Warner, like Roman Polanski and Woody Allan, who have also been accused of sexual assault, have not received the same amount of public criticism while their work also remains untarnished. For him and others who were influenced by and took part in Cosby’s work, it’s the vilification of that body of work that cuts so deep, not just from the cancellation of re-runs, but for what the iconic show and its characters represented.
“When we have images that perpetuate the negative stereotype of people of colour, we’ve always had The Cosby Show to hold up against that,” Malcolm told the women of The View.
Indeed, it’s one thing to consider the accusations, but for many who adored the man and saw him as a positive influence on the community it’s also about tearing down the character and what he represented.
As Eddie Griffin told Vlad TV, “There is a systematic effort to destroy every black male entertainer’s image. They want us all to have asterisks by our names,” he says, going on to list celebrities like Michael Jackson and OJ Simpson whose legacies were brought into question in the face of accusations. “Nobody leaves this business clean.”
But the opinions of an entire population can hardly be gleaned from Cosby’s defenders. After all, many other prominent African American voices chose to believe the victims, most notably President Barack Obama, who responded to the allegations by saying, “If you give a woman — or a man, for that matter — without his or her knowledge a drug and then have sex with that person without consent, that's rape.”
While others like writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, lamented the fact that Cosby’s accusations had been public knowledge for decades before they made major headlines.
“I believed Bill Cosby was a rapist,” Coates once said, when speaking of a 2008 feature he wrote on the actor. “I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough.”
That silence is telling of the impact Cosby’s fame had on his own community and the apprehension at pointing the finger at such an influential figure. But Bill Cosby the man was much more controversial than the lovable father figure he portrayed on television. The further you get from those who knew him personally or were influenced by his work the easier it seems to break from the character and his legacy.
Comparisons have been made between Cosby’s trial and that of OJ Simpson, but according to FiveThirtyEight’s (a website focusing on opinion poll analysis) examination of Gallup, CNN, Fox, and ABC polls, public opinion was far more favorable toward Simpson. Both during and after the trial, only about 20 percent of African Americans thought Simpson was guilty. While for Cosby, YouGov (an international market research firm) numbers show that among African Americans, only 28 percent believe that Cosby should not have had to stand trial.
Bill Cosby’s relationship with the community he was thought to represent had been a shaky one, especially among younger generations that had not known him as the television father figure he portrayed. In 2015, while Damon Wayans joked about the possibility of his guilt (even calling some of Cosby’s accusers, “un-rape-able”), he also revealed the way some felt about his public persona.
“You know what Bill Cosby did wrong,” Wayans said to the hosts of Power 105.1, “he started criticizing black men, and then he lost us. And so we’re not supporting him and they see that opening.”
What Wayans is referring to is Cosby’s infamous speaking tours in which he scolded young black men, demanding they embrace traditional family life and criticizing their taste in music and fashion.
It was this seeming disdain for youth culture, which was featured quite often on The Cosby Show that many saw as a personal attack when delivered off-screen. And it was this criticism that brought the attention back to his history of rape allegations when standup comedian Hannibal Buress spoke about Cosby in his routine.
“Bill Cosby has the fucking smuggest old black man public persona that I hate,” Burress said in a 2014 standup gig in Philadelphia. “He gets on TV like, pull your pants up black people I was on TV in the 80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom. Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby.”
The rant would eventually go viral and prompt many to look into the allegations as Buress suggested they do.
At the time only 13 women had accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, a number which is egregious on its own before you consider that today that number tops 50. Still, with such a dark history, Cosby’s celebrity was maintained by those who saw him as a positive influence and otherwise ignored by those he offended. In either case, the public reaction shows how sexual assault can have wide ranging implications that go beyond Cosby and his victims. The illusion had to be shattered in order to see the man behind it, and all the while the focus was never where it should have been: the victims.
Barbara Bowman, one of the women who had struggled to be heard for years, told CNN exactly why the discourse around the whole case is so problematic. “It took a man to crack a joke on stage in a comedy routine calling Bill Cosby a rapist for people to go, ‘wow maybe there’s something to this.’”
Just as the destruction of Cosby’s legacy affects an entire community, so too does the outcome of this particular trial. Because while it was only Andrea Constand’s case that was being heard in court, it was every victim that was waiting on the sidelines for justice.
Despite Cosby’s own admission that he intended to use drugs and rape his victims, many of those women have no legal recourse left.
Andrea Constand’s case fell just within the 12-year statute of limitations in Pennsylvania, where the criminal charges against Cosby were brought. Other states have a statute of limitations of ten years or less, so for many of the women who have come out to accuse Cosby, Constand’s trial was their only hope for justice.
Still, these women have fought tirelessly over the years to ensure that other victims don’t have to endure the same struggles they did. They’ve shown that the far reaching effects of such a case don’t always have to be negative — that the laws in their home states can change so that justice is never too far out of reach.
Some have been successful in their search for justice by other means. Like Lise-Lotte Lublin, who successfully petitioned to extend the statute of limitations in Nevada to 20 years, and Beth Ferrier and Heidi Thomas who have done the same for Colorado. Meanwhile, Victoria Valentino, Janice Baker Kinney, Lili Bernard, and Linda Kirkpatrick have worked to totally eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual assault in California through their ‘EndRapeSOL’ campaign.
No matter the outcome of a retrial, the Bill Cosby case has already had a major impact on the way sexual assault cases are dealt with in America. It’s also taught us that we’ve come a long way to becoming a society that can openly talk about sexual assault, and that the system can and is adapting to better accommodate victims. Ideally, those in the courtroom should be at the center of our considerations, yet in truth, such serious cases often carry with them the weight of public controversy that can cut across issues of sex, race, community, and legacy. What the Cosby trial teaches us most is that that the biggest obstacle to justice is still the one that can’t be legislated: the way we think about victims and our willingness to believe them even when that belief can shatter our perceptions.